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Response to Review no. 638

Robert Skinner’s discussion of my book is perceptive and generous, other reviewers have been much more severe. Several readers have suggested that as a ‘critical life’ my biography is insufficiently critical. In particular it has been claimed that I failed to identify Mandela’s weaknesses as a strategist during his career as a guerrilla revolutionary, that I am too willing to trust his testimony, and that I present too rosy a picture of Mandela’s performance as a government leader between 1994 and 1999.

The first of these objections echoes criticisms that emerged from within the African National Congress (ANC) in the aftermath of the first Umkhonto we Sizwe campaign, both from Umkhonto veterans such as Ben Turok and from the ANC’s left-wing critics, particularly Baruch Hirson and Martin Legassick. In rough summary the argument suggests that the turn to armed struggle was strategically misconceived. It decapitated a movement that still had considerable potential for non-violent resistance (especially in the workplace). Guerilla warfare was a blind alley in the 1960s; South Africa did not have the terrain that favoured the rural insurgency that was the prime focus of the programme Umkhonto adopted during the sabotage campaign. The hopes of external support that Mandela helped to raise in his tour of Africa and Europe were unrealistic.

With the wisdom of hindsight these criticisms have certain validity, but Mandela’s perceptions in 1961-2 of what was then possible were widely shared; in any case the ANC was in danger of being outbid by the more belligerent Pan-Africanists. The Pan-African Congress (PAC) was making considerable headway ‘diplomatically’, not just in Africa. In the end external support was a critical consideration in achieving a successful transition to democracy for without armed struggle (however symbolic this may have been) such support might not have been forthcoming. Long after Mandela’s imprisonment, the ANC’s ability to revive its guerrilla campaigning in the late 1970s was a key factor in its attraction of a massive political following inside South Africa, especially among young people.

A second major criticism of my book is that I am too ready to take Mandela at his word, especially in his claims about his political allegiances. R. W. Johnson has suggested that in his court address at the Rivonia trial, Mandela was following a collectively written script. From this perspective, Mandela’s presentation of himself as an African patriot with liberal democratic predispositions must be understood as tactically circumspect, and not a straightforward representation of his true beliefs. In fact, Johnson continues, Mandela was either a communist or so close to being one that it made no difference and his court addresses were in written by party members active in his defence team.

All I can say in response is that I have seen no evidence to confirm that Mandela joined the Communist Party. If the authorities had had such evidence at the time, or even thereafter, they would have used it (what they did have was rejected in court). In my biography I do show that Mandela was strongly influenced by the party’s thought and by deep friendships with people he knew were communists through the 1950s and early 1960s. While I acknowledge the importance of this influence, his distance from the party and his political independence were very evident during his visit to London in 1962; indeed his remarks about the ANC’s relationship with the party on his return to South Africa dismayed many South African communists. The similarities between his two court addresses, in October 1962 and April 1964, are so extensive that it is almost certainly the case that they were both written by the same person, yet the legal arrangements and people involved in both trials were different. All the eyewitnesses, including George Bizos and Anthony Sampson, suggest that Mandela wrote his 1964 address by himself, while its literary style conforms to other examples of his prose, including handwritten letters and drafts of his autobiography written while he was in prison in 1977.

In his autobiography Mandela is extremely critical of Umkhonto’s strategic programme ‘Operation Mayibuye’. Indeed, it is likely that this consideration prompted the autobiography’s suppression when it arrived in London, even though by that stage the operation had been incorporated into the ANC’s ‘Strategy and Tactics’. Mandela’s differences with Govan Mbeki in prison are also important pointers to his political position, at least in the 1970s. All the circumstantial evidence, therefore, suggests that Mandela was telling the truth in 1964. Would it have mattered if he had not been? Yes, I think so, because he would then seem a morally diminished figure and it is his ability to conform both with indigenous and with western liberal conceptions of honour that makes him so attractive and powerful as a historic personality.

Finally, critical readers have suggested that I fail to take Mandela to task sufficiently for the mistakes of his administration between 1994 and 1999: his failure to check the behaviour of incompetent or venal colleagues, the too high a premium placed on loyalty and friendship, policy drift and wasted opportunities. I certainly could have been harsher about certain ministers and Mandela’s toleration of their poor performance: Stella Sigcau and Nkosazana Zuma are two cases in point. Mandela himself has acknowledged that his administration was far too slow in developing sensible policies to address the HIV-AIDS pandemic. On venality, Mandela was a little too ready to allow crony-style social relationships to develop around the ANC. From time to time he could distance himself from a family-like loyalty to his party but often he would place party concerns before national interest.

With respect to the charge of policy drift I would maintain that the major responsibility was collective. Certainly it was the case that Mandela lacked a strategic vision in government and he probably did not have a very detailed grasp of his own party’s policies, especially with respect to macro-economic management. His foreign policy decisions are often viewed as erratic, though here I think his performance was rather better than is sometimes allowed, especially given what followed. On social reform, I think the Mandela administration again achieved more than it receives credit for. However, in fairness, while Mandela was indispensable as a leader of government who could build support for the new administration he was, by the time of his accession, too frail to play a really assertive role as an architect of policy. It was this consideration which influenced my own evaluation of his achievements and shortcomings in office.